Chiefs Consider Humanities In Schools and Society

By Thomas Toch — May 09, 1984 4 min read

Los Angeles--Though many recent studies and reports call for more efforts in schools to foster scientific literacy, the top education officials from some 25 states spent three days late last month immersing themselves in the humanities.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (ccsso) brought the school officials together to “excite them about the general concept of the humanities as a method of learning and about the individual disciplines,” according to Hilda L. Smith, the council staff member who organized the conference.

Scholarly Views

Prominent scholars and writers from a number of fields spoke to the chief state school officials on the value of study in the humanities and their place in an increasingly technological society.

For example, Benjamin DeMott, an author and professor of English at Amherst College, said that the humanities--a field usually thought to encompass the arts, literature, languages, philosophy, and history--help “educate the imagination.” And an educated imagination, he said, allows one to understand more openly and fully the minds of others.

Murray Gell-Mann of the California Institute of Technology, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, suggested that schools too often fail to help students understand the interconnectedness of the various disciplines by insisting on teaching narrowly defined subjects.

And John Garraty, professor of history at Columbia University, said that the study of history “puts us outside of ourselves,” thus offering a means of “combating parochialism in a world of specialization.”

Practical Programs

The conference, which was recommended by a ccsso committee that last December released the results of a survey showing that few states are urging instruction in the humanities, was also designed to provide the school officials with “practical information on programs in the humanities that work,” Ms.3Smith said. To that end, several speakers outlined such programs in detail.

Benjamin Ladner described the work of the National Humanities Faculty, a non-profit organization based in Atlanta that brings leading university scholars in the humanities together with teachers in an effort to improve humanities instruction in the schools.

“We’re trying to make it possible for people inside of schools to rediscover each other as intellectuals,” Mr. Ladner, president of the organization, told those at the conference.

Several speakers suggested the need to link the humanities in the school curriculum to broader social conditions.

“We must find ways to make the humanities relevant to today’s students,” said Diane E. Watson, chairman of the California Senate Health and Welfare Committee. “Getting students to be participants in their own education is the key.”

Robert Kelley, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, suggested that this can be done in his field through the practice of “public history.”

“We should be encouraging kids to dig out and explain the history around them, getting them into the local archives and the like,” he said. “We need to turn history students loose in a different way, get them personally involved.”

Shared Values

Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction in California, outlined three reasons that the schools should spend more time teaching the humanities: they will provide students with the literacy skills needed in an increasingly demanding economic environment, they can convey to students a set of shared cultural values and traditions that over the past 20 years has been de-emphasized by the schools, and they can be used to instill personal values in students.

However, Helene Moglen, profes6sor of literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, suggested that the cultural values reflected in many of the classic works in the humanities are those of the “majority culture,” which, she said, is white, male, and middle-class.

She criticized William Bennett, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities who was not present at the conference, for publically advocating recently a return to the study of the “classic” books in the humanities because, she said, they offer an inaccurate, prejudicial view of the role of women and minorities in society.

The primary role of the humanities, she said, should be to contribute to development of the full potential of the individual.

The settings of the conference reflected its theme. Half of the sessions were held at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, a 10-year-old villa with intricate marble work, manicured gardens, a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, and some of the world’s foremost collections of Greek and Roman antiquities and Renaissance and Baroque art.

The balance of the conference was held at the Huntington Library and Gallery, whose priceless collections include a Gutenburg Bible, the manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and an extensive array of 18th- and 19th-century British art.

Lynn Simons, superintendent of public instruction in Wyoming, said the conference “was very valuable in calling our attention to an important field at a time when many people are focusing on math and science education.”

“I will be looking for ways to advocate the humanities more aggressively,” she said.

The conference was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation and The Walter and Elise Hass Foundation. The Getty Museum and the Huntington Library provided their facilities free of charge.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1984 edition of Education Week as Chiefs Consider Humanities In Schools and Society